Above all rivers thy river hath renowne

Here comes the first glimmer of that “notion” Malcolm had in ending the previous post.

For the time being, Redfellow Hovel and its inhabitants are located north Thameside. Well, about five or six miles north, to be explicit.

Whenever Malcolm has to venture sarf uf da riva, it is something of an adventure into Indian territory. Even so, that was the first home he recalls, his first school, where his little bother, the Professor, was born.

The eternal divisor

The river has been there, a drain from the last great Ice Age, with a good Brythonic name: Tamēsa. This is cognate with the Thame, the Tame, the Tamar and the Teme — those early British Celts were none too imaginative in their namings. That last one is, in Welsh, Afon Tefediad. And therein lies the clue: all derive from the Brythonic for “dark”.

The river is one of the great cultural barriers of Britain.

On with the motley, and into the verse

In 2005  J.C.Eade posted an anthology of seventy poems on or about the Thames. The first in his list is firmly attributed to William Dunbar:

Above all rivers thy river hath renowne,
Whose beryl streames, pleasant and preclare,
Under thy lusty walles runneth down;
Where many a swanne doth swimme with winges fair,
Where many a barge doth sail, and row with oar,
Where many a ship doth rest with top-royal.
O town of townes, patron and not compare,
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Upon thy lusty Brigge of pillars white
Been merchauntis full royall to behold;
Upon thy stretis goeth many a semely knight
All clad in velvet gownes and cheynes of gold.
By Juliu Caesar the Tour founded of old
May be the hous of Mars victoriall,
Whos artillery with tonge may not be told.
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Strong be thy wallis that about thee stanis;
Wise be the people that within thee dwells;
Fresh is thy river with his lusty strandis;
Blith be thy churches, wele sowning be thy bellis;
Riche be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis;
Fair be thy wives, right lovesom, white and small;
Clere be thy virgins, lusty under kellis;
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Those are octaves four to six, out of the original seven (Bartleby has the full text, from Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse. It’s a straightforward ballade pattern: were one to be reaching for a pompous term (perish the Malcolmian thought), huitain might spring from the lips.

His makar’s voice?

There is, to be honest, just the faintest doubt about Dunbar’s authorship. The “facts” in favour are that Dunbar was in England in 1501: the second instalment of his £10 per annum official pension was due at Martinmas 1501, but the accounts note it had been held back until efter he com furth of Ingland. He would have been in the train of the plenipotentiaries for the signing of the marriage contract between James IV of Scotland (aged twenty-seven) and Margaret, Henry VII of England’s daughter (rising twelve years of age). The original (as above) was inscribed into The Chronicle of London for 1501:

This yere, in the Cristmas week, the Mair had to dyner the Ambassadors of Scotland, whom accompanied my Lord Chaunceler, and other Lords of this realm; where sitting at dynes, one of the Scottis giving attendaunce upon a Bisshop Ambassadour, the which was reported to be a Prothonotary of Scotland, and servaunty of the said Bisshop, made this Balade following.

Dunbar, the Rhymer of Scotland received £6 13s 4d, twice, as “tips” from Henry VII, and a further fiver on top of his regular pension when he got back to Edinburgh.

Even so, despite the look and feel of the piece, we haven’t got Dunbar’s smoking quill; and verse-making was something of a noble sport among the Scots lords.


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Filed under History, Literature, London, Muswell Hill, Scotland

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